I I had occasion to drive through Holtville not to long ago on my way to Birmingham. I don’t get up that way too much anymore and the older I get, the more fond my memories of growing up there become. I don’t want to move back there or anything. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I’ve gotten far too accustomed to the convenience of living three minutes from Wal Mart, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Winn-Dixie, and, well, you get the idea. But as I drove through Holtville the other day, past the many cotton fields, I was reminded of a story. Imagine that.
As hard as it may be to believe, when I was growing up in Holtville in the 80’s, many of us teenagers would actually spend part of our summer working in the cotton fields. We didn’t have to pick the cotton. We had to pull the weeds. We would all meet up before sunrise at some barn somewhere in someone’s field, load up in a truck, and be hauled off to walk up and down long rows of cotton pulling weeds. I think we got paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 a day and it was a long, hot day.
Manual labor has never exactly been my thing. I never learned how to do many things that fall into that category. I visited hospitals with my dad but pastor’s families usually leave the work to someone else due to them living in homes that the church owns. You know how we Baptists are with our committees and such. My first time at being a weed puller lasted only slightly longer than my boxing career.
The crew that I ended up with had several people in it that I was sort of afraid of. I won’t name them here because I am still sort of afraid of them. One of the guys had a menacing tattoo on his arm that said, “Angle of Death.” Yeah, I know, not as menacing as it would have been had it said “Angel” but menacing nonetheless. I was 14 or 15 years old and had really wanted to be working with my friends. It didn’t work out that way. We got to the field and started walking back and forth, up and down the seemingly endless rows of cotton yanking weeds up by the root. There was a truck parked nearby that had a water-cooler where we could go take a break every now and then. After about an hour I decided it was time for some water.
I sat down on the tailgate to rest for a minute and that’s when the voices in my head started. “You could be sleeping right now.””Your Nintendo is missing you.””The Price is Right will be coming on in an hour, followed by Card Sharks.” The voices were very convincing. I didn’t need a lot of convincing. Of all the places I could have been and wanted to be that morning, a cotton field was at the very bottom of the list. I looked across and saw everyone a couple of hundred feet away focused on nothing more than the next weed.
It was at that point that I decided to make my move. Freedom beckoned and my answer to freedom was “Yes, freedom, YES! Here I come!” In the blink of an eye, I was off! I sprinted toward the nearest road, leaping rows of cotton with all the agility of an Olympic hurdler and I didn’t slow down until I was out of sight of everyone. Harriet Tubman would have been proud. The owner of the field, Sanford Peeples, would later say he looked up and all he saw was my head popping up and down as I jumped each row.
The road to freedom took me to The Boys Store(I never remember seeing an apostrophe in any of their signs, so there is not one here) where they let me use their phone to call home for someone to come pick me up. I would have been better off had I remained in servitude. The ride home was a long one even though it was only three miles. I walked in the door and saw my father sitting there with this look on his face. Some of you know the look. Your parents have a similar one. I don’t remember much else of what happened that day. Traumatic probably best describes what I do remember. It’s probably best that I’ve blocked it out. Therapy can get expensive.
That wasn’t the last job I up and quit for whatever reason. I did usually make it more than an hour, though. The closest thing I ever came to working in a cotton field again was when I got my first “real” job at CCC Associates at 16. Most of us refer to it as Caffco or Southern Homes and Garden. It should have been called Hades. Look for my experiences there in this space very soon.
Teenagers in Holtville don’t have to pull weeds in the cotton fields anymore. I guess they make chemicals or some fancy tractor thing that can handle that now. Maybe someone should bring it back, though. Working hard like that builds character and teaches a good work ethic. At least that’s what I’ve heard.
I never worked the cotton fields, but like you, I endured two summers working at CCC Associates. I worked in the warehouse in the VERY BACK on the right where they made the dried, preserved, and dyed foliage that they sell in stores like Michaels. I would load tractor trailers full of 43 pound boxes of oak leaves all dadgum day for minimum wage. We didn’t have a forklift either. We’d run (push) the pallets into the trailer (uphill because of the slant of the dock) with a pallet jack and then unstack the pallet and restack the boxes into the trailer. My buddy and I would take turns from trailer to trailer running pallets or slinging boxes. I swear in the back of those trailers doing that kind of work during the summer in Alabama, it must have been 125 degrees. But I came back the next summer because I needed the money, and was willing to work for it.
I have lived that!!! One of the first things we did was unload a semi-truck full of pinestraw in the Alabama heat. Heat stroke and black-lung! I’ve got some stories of my time there. $3.35 an hour. Wow. That’s funny stuff!